At last, a good building!
The proposed new headquarters of Intelsat at Connecticut Avenue between Tilden and Van Ness streets is the first institutional building in Washington, or anywhere, to herald a new architecture, perhaps the New Architecture.
Intelsat is an international organization that owns and operates communications satellites used by 102 member nations for telephone and television replays. Its world headquarters offices, operations and control center are now located at 409 L'Enfant Plaza SW.
The new architect of the new building is John Andrews, an Australian, who won Intelsat's design competition among six carefully selected architects from different countries.
Andrews' design excites me because it responds in wholly new ways to architecture's three most pressing current needs.
The first is to create pleasant and healthy working conditions in a setting dominiated by "2001" robot machinery and electronics. The need, as we all keep saying, is for "more human" buildings.
The second is for energy efficiency. Buildings are second only to transportation in energy consumption. Architects' efforts to save on heating, cooling and lighting are so far confined to adding solar panels, windmills or earth berms to conventional structures. These devices, however, are not very effective for larger offices or other institutional buildings. Nor do they harmonize with the traditional urban setting.
And that is the third need: a traditional urban setting that satisfies our psychological longing for continuity.We all seem to want visual assurance, as it were, that our home -- the human habitat with trees you can sit under, sidewalks where people meet, houses that look like houses ought to look -- will not suddenly be transformed into some science fiction fantasy.
Most of the citizens who keep fighting high-rises, freeways and K Street architecture sense that we can preserve our humanity in a built environment only if it preserves the basic traditions of human settlements and architecture, as well as the human scale.
Andrews meets all three needs with one stroke of design ingenuity. Human comfort, energy efficiency and respect for the site and the cityscape are not separate features of his building, but the elements and functions that form the design.
To assure pleasant working conditions, Andrews houses the offices and control rooms in a series of octagonal, four-story structures which he calls pods. Office workers have full daylight and views all around. The spaces need little electric light or air conditioning.
The pods, which have a floor area of approximately 85 by 85 feet, are clustered around considerably taller atriums -- glass and stainless steel pavilions that look a little like hot-houses.
But they are cool and cooling in summer. They have plants and fountains inside. Outside breezes flow in through low openings, and are cooled by octagonal pools placed between the pods. Thus, naturally cooled fresh air circulates throughout the building.
In winter, the glass-topped atriums act as solar heat collectors and help warm the building. The glass facades are screened from direct sun rays by a newly invented lacelike curtain of thin stainless steel rods and triangular acrylic polaroid triangles.
The roofs of the pods serve as terrace gardens with greenery and fountains. The entire building complex is shaded by old trees that Andrews' siting has been careful to save.
The result of all this is that 60 percent of the building's energy needs are supplied free, with the compliments of Nature. While the average Washington office building consumes 65,000 Btu's (British thermal units) per square foot per year, the Intelsat building is estimated to require only 24,000 per square foot per year.
Among the loosely clustered office pods and water pools are free-standing elevator shafts, which also serve as cooling towers. This is a feature typical of Andrews' many minor innovations. Usually a building of this size would have a large, custom-built air-conditioning plant. Andrews uses a dozen or so small air conditioners, placed in these towers. They can be bought inexpensively off the shelf and are easy to maintain and replace. cThe towers add drama to this varied yet not really complex structure.
What impresses me most about the design is how lithe and humble it is.
The new buildings of the University of the District of Columbia next door exemplify the current Washington vogue of making institutional buildings as gravely monumental, ponderous, heavy and pharaonic as possible. They are thin architecturl concepts set in thick concrete, as though the architects felt their idea might otherwise too readily blow away.
Andrews obviously has no such fears. He says, "This building was designed in a spirit of openness, of optimism, of faith in cooperation between people and groups of people, and the use of modern technology."
Andrews does not, however, show off his cheering faith. From Connecticut Avenue, you will hardly see his building for the trees. In the first phase, only half of the 12-acre site will be developed. At least four acres will forever remain a wooded public park.
Employe parking for at least 300 cars will be underground. The ceremonial entrance will be on the west side of the building. Most people, however, will enter from the Van Ness Metro station. Andrews is considering some shops along this walkway to relate the building to the city, to develop "an urban interface," as he puts it.
The site belongs to the federal government and was originally to be used by the Organization of American States. OAS, however, has built elsewhere and Congress has been asked to make the site available to Intelsat. e
The land cost is about $5 to $6 million; the building will cost some $30 million.
Andrews' experience with buildings of similar scale in Australia, Canada and the U.S. -- the best known are Scarboro College near Toronto and Gunt Hall (the Graduate School of Design) at Harvard -- should reassure us about design mistakes and cost overruns. I keep my fingers crossed that Andrews resists the usual temptations and maintains the fresh simplicity of his first, winning design as he works out the details.
If Intelsat's is obviously the kind of surprise that good old GSA (the General Service Administration, which builds most of our federal buildings) will never suprise us with, it is because Intelsat took the trouble to find the right architect for the job. There is only one way to do that -- by competition.
Advised by Paul Speiregen, a Washington architect and expert on competitive selection procedures, Intelsat first selected six internationally renowned architects from a list of about 100 who indicated interest. The six were given a week's briefing in Washington. They were also given three months and $30,000 each to develop their proposals.
Their jury consisted of Intelsat officials as well as architects Pietro Belluschi (USA), John Michael Austin-Smith (Great Britain) and Marco Zanuso (Italy). The jury was advised by independent cost consultants and energy efficiency experts. It deliberated two days and was unanimous. Intelsat says the entire selection procedure -- travel, consultants and all -- cost under $300,000.
Too cumbersome and too expensive, says GSA and AIA (the American Institute of Architects), who are opposed to competitions that may tangle their cozy networks.
But too cumbersome and too expensive are also the words for most of their public buildings.